A New Edition of the Greek New Testament

For the first time in a generation, pastors are confronted with a new edition of the Greek New Testament. Since 1975 the text of the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament and, matching it in 1979, the text of the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece have been identical. Subsequent editions updated the apparatuses of the respective editions, but the printed text remained unchanged in spite of new manuscripts discoveries, refined knowledge of patristic and versional witnesses, and significant shifts in methodology. The Nestle-Aland 28th edition (NA28) marks the beginning of a new era in the history of the printing of the Greek New Testament, for the handful of changes made in this edition signal more changes to come throughout the New Testament text over the next decades and a shift from print to digital formats.

Four items will be of immediate interest to pastors. First, the changes to the text: Fifty-one changes have been made to the printed text, all in the Catholic Epistles. These changes reflect decisions made in the production of the Novum Testamentum Graece: Editio Critica Maior (ECM) published 1995–2005. The Catholic Epistles, having by far the fewest numbers of manuscripts and the least complicated textual tradition, were selected as the starting point for this comprehensive critical edition of the entire New Testament. Rather than produce a hand edition with a text that differs from that of the comprehensive edition, the texts of the two editions were brought into parallel. Work continues on the ECM; projections are that John and Acts will be completed in the next couple of years, with work on the rest of the New Testament planned to last until 2030. Given the relative simplicity of the text of the Catholic Epistles and the complexity of the textual tradition of John and Acts, we might anticipate far more changes in those texts, and more substantive changes, than are presented in the Catholic Epistles.

Space allows mention of only one textual decision made in NA28 at Jude 5. In a passage with important Christological implications, NA28 prints Ἰησοῦς as the one who “delivered his people out of Egypt” in place of [ὁ] κύριος in NA27 or ὁ θεός in other witnesses. The ESV has already chosen to depart from the standard text and prints “Jesus” in this passage.

The second item of interest to pastors is the adoption of a new methodology. Previous generations learned to classify manuscripts based on “text-types,” such as “Alexandrian,” “Western,” and “Caesarean.” However, more comprehensive comparison of all readings in all manuscripts, now made possible by computer analysis, shows that these classic divisions (first identified in the early eighteenth century, before the discovery of any papyrus manuscripts) are not meaningful, especially in the period of the greatest variation, the second and third centuries. The method now employed has been labeled the “Coherence-Based Genealogical Method.” Using comprehensive computer databases, the “coherence” of witnesses in their relationships to each other is able to be discerned over an entire book or corpus, so that the researcher can determine rather quickly if decisions made about the “initial text” could have produced the resultant stemma of manuscripts. It is important to note that the databases and software do not determine the “initial text” readings; the researcher, using any method (Reasoned Eclecticism; Thoroughgoing Eclecticism; even Majority Text Theory) determines the “initial text” reading in each place. The software then compiles a stemma based on all those decisions to determine if an accurate stemma results. Individual textual decisions can then be altered, the program run again, and refinements to the text made until a “coherent” stemma of witnesses is produced. This is certainly very different from the “Local Text-Type” theory that most pastors learned in Greek class, a method which, it must be said, fell out of disuse decades ago. Hence the changes to the text.

Third, this edition reflects a shift in assumptions about what the evidence allows one to reconstruct. Where previous generations, emboldened by a confidence in science which was possible only in the Enlightenment, claimed to be able to reproduce the “New Testament in the Original Greek,” late twentieth century scholars have known that extant evidence reaches only back to the second century, and that for only a scattering of passages. There may be nearly 150 years between the original writing/delivery of a New Testament text and the now-preserved manuscripts. Given the strong dependence on a genealogical method, this edition claims only to to reconstruct the “Ausgangstext,” or the “Initial Text,” defined as follows:

 “The initial text is the form of a text that stands at the beginning of a textual tradition. The constructed text of an edition represents the hypothetical reconstruction of the initial text.” (ECM 2 Peter, 23)

This edition helpfully acknowledges that reproducing an “autograph” of any New Testament writing is an impossible task, given available evidence. This also leads to a perhaps surprising move by the editors: the removal of any reference to a conjecture in the apparatus. Since the editors claim to reconstruct only the hypothetical text that stands at the head of the manuscript tradition (and not the “autograph”), conjectures are not part of their project. So, for example, the conjecture that 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 is a post-Pauline interpolation has been deleted from the apparatus.

The final item of interest to pastors is a new “bonus” feature: the online/electronic version of the NA28. Whereas the new edition somewhat simplifies the apparatus, in particular by removing strings of irrelevant manuscript numbers, the online edition will be comprehensive. Variants not noted in the NA28 apparatus will be available in electronic editions, and in many cases full transcriptions of the manuscripts will be available so that the readings of a given manuscript over a block of text can be easily read. Indeed, the day may soon come when bringing a tablet to class or the study will replace the little blue book that so easily carries about.

Over the next few weeks I will be providing more thorough discussions of the changes and features of the new edition on this site. The official website of the Nestle-Aland text is now live, and the digital Nestle-Aland will soon be available here. Other features of the new edition, such as simplifying the apparatus, removing Latin (unfortunately), appendices, and so on, might be welcome and make the edition slightly more user friendly. However, they will likely not persuade a pastor to purchase the new edition. Since the Catholic Epistles are not often then basis of sermons and Bible studies, some pastors may wish to forego purchasing this edition, waiting for the updated texts of John and Acts. But consultation of the electronic edition (when it becomes available) will be a necessary task.

The Greek New Testament was born in the premodern period, copied by hand on papyrus, then on vellum in majuscule and minuscule script, a process which brought with it inevitable errors and alterations. It entered the industrial age in 1516 with production via movable type, followed by lithograph printing methods. This gave the text, for 500 years, an appearance of fixedness and certainty it could not granted in previous generations. Now, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, the Greek New Testament has entered the computer era, with all the benefits and drawbacks of transient, erasable, and alterable dots on screen. Much like our modern translations are changed every few years, in some cases (like the ESV) virtually silently, now our Greek New Testament will enter the realm of instability. For careful students of the New Testament, this is a welcome development, for new discoveries and refinements in methodology can be incorporated immediately, rather than waiting for 35 years for a new edition. For pastors who serve people concerned “about changes to the Bible,” it is time to reacquaint yourself with your little blue texts so that you can point people to the locus of confidence, the Word.

Editor’s Note: This piece first appeared on the blog of the journal Logia.

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  1. David Oberdieck November 1, 2012

    Thanks for the post. Do you have any sense about how the Arian controversy (or any other theological conflict) may have affected manuscript traditions?

  2. Tim Koch November 1, 2012

    You may want to read Bart Ehrman’s “Orthodox Corruption of Scripture” if you haven’t already. It’s a starting point on this type of discussion.

  3. Rev. Paul T. McCain November 3, 2012

    I’m looking forward to Dr. Kloha’s further articles on the NA28. I am not sure I can part with my trusty NA used throughout college, seminary, etc. recovered, et. Glad to hear of the online options.

    The “Nestle-Aland” text is the one most frequently used by students, pastors and scholars. It provides a large amount of data in the footnotes indicating minor textual differences, called “variants” that exist between the various copies of the original documents of the NT, known as the “autographs” — none of which we have, of course.

    Some would use this reality to propose that somehow we have an uncertain, unreliable or shaky knowledge of what the New Testament actually contains. Not true at all. Anytime you hear anyone using the matter of textual variants to dispute or try to refute the doctrine of inspiration or inerrancy you need to know you are dealing either with a person who has no real awareness of what he speaking about, or, as is sadly more often the case, a flat-out liar trying to deceive you.

    Keep in mind that there is not an iota (see what I did there?) of Christian doctrine that depends on, or is contradicted by, a textual variant.

    In spite of the myriad of textual variants, we do in fact have a reliable text of Holy Scripture.

    Ironically, it is perhaps the text of the NT for which there is more attestation than any other document from the ancient Greek/Roman era.

    It would be dangerous to suggest that there is some vast distinction between the form of the text and the material brought forward by the text (forma and materia). So, while our confidence is in the material content of the texts we do have we can also be confidence that God in His providential care for His Church has allowed us to have, to this day, the form of the texts that he gave by plenary, verbal inspiration, inerrantly, to those penmen who were moved along by the Holy Spirit, writing the very God-breathed words that the Lord wants us to have and to know.

    Therefore the faithful can know that the text of the NT is not some sort of obscure, hidden text that finally can only be trusted to the extent that the latest and greatest version of a critical edition like the NA makes available every few decades.

    Also, I also caution folks not to get caught up in rather foolish speculations about the canonical authority of those texts the Church has always received, for instance, speculations that, for example, the Book of Acts perhaps should not be counted among the homolegoumena, should be put into that category of ideas that, as my friend Jim Voelz likes to say, “Makes for an interesting journal article, but is wrong.”

    • Jeff Kloha November 5, 2012

      Thanks for the comment. This essay, and the comment by Rev. McCain, was cross-posted on concordiatheology.org, though the comment has slight variations. I’m not sure which version of the comment was the “original text” and which was the copy, so I’ll leave the same reply on each site.

      A few thoughts in reaction:

      1) When I’ve given presentations on the text of the NT to lay audiences, which I’ve done on many occasions, I find that they do not need things “simplified”; they are well aware of the issues and appreciate careful presentations that are honest with the challenges and realities of the history of the text. In fact, I use virtually the same presentation for a lay audience that I do for pastors. So, indeed, we do not wish to cause any doubt. But I’ve found that the best way to avoid causing doubt is to be as thorough and clear about the manuscript situation and the textual problems as possible.

      2) The comment raises issues about how we express the authority of the Scriptures in light of the differences in the manuscripts. I hope that we as Lutherans can have some helpful conversations about the way that we express this (though I’d doubt that an internet forum is the best place for that to happen). I’m not entirely convinced that using Aristotelian and Thomistic categories of “Material” and “Formal” are helpful; these categories are not used in the early fathers when discussing the authority of the text, nor are the found in the Reformation period or in the Lutheran Confessions. I suspect that we’ll be better served if we reinvestigate the way that our early fathers viewed the authority of the text, because they were dealing with a similar phenomenon of text that we now have: Rather than the seemingly fixed, immutable, printed text known to the post-Reformation and Modernist church, we today have a transient transmission of the text, much like the Reformation and early church had. In any case, I was hoping to elicit conversation, and thank you for offering your thoughts. I hope the discussion continues in a helpful manner.

      3) I understand why you introduce language like this: “God in His providential care for His Church has allowed us to have, to this day, the form of the texts that he gave by plenary, verbal inspiration, inerrantly, to those penmen who were moved along by the Holy Spirit.” However, this is precisely the question: Which of the thousands of manuscripts, printed editions, translations, etc. carries, precisely, the plenary, verbally inspired, inerrant text? Does the authority of the Scriptures rest solely on having possession of such a text? And, are these the only alternatives available to us: 1) “we have the absolutely perfect wording of the text as left by the penmen” or b) “we have nothing”? I think those are false alternatives, and neither alternative accurately or faithfully addresses the situation of the text.

      4) Acts is antilegomena? Who’s smoking crack?

  4. Rev. Paul T. McCain November 5, 2012

    Just a couple follow ups to Dr. Kloha’s remarks. Yes, the textual transmission of these comments is a bit uncertain, no doubt a critical edition might be helpful, but for now…

    The major point I was attempting to make is that while we definitely both can, and should, explain the fascinating subject of textual criticism to the laity, we must never leave them with the impression that we do not have a NT text that is uncertain due to the myriad of variants. And in so doing create the impression that finally we need to try to figure out what might be the closest to the original so that we can finally know what the NT is trying to teach. I do think it is critical to assert, from the very start, that there are no textual variants that alter any point of doctrine and that the text, in spite of variants, is more than adequate for establishing sedes doctrinae. We must take never to lapse back into creating a chasm between “the Word” and “the inscripturated Word.” Those were not good days for our church body. I say no more.

    And, I do think it is worth pointing out how NT text is perhaps the one text from antiquity for which we have the greatest manuscript attestation. And I would also respectfully disagree that we can not point out the providential care of God for His church in providing the text of the Bible that we do have and use today.

    And finally, I would encourage Dr. Kloha to reconsider the very useful distinction between materia and forma, used quite brilliantly by Lutheran Orthodox dogmaticians to set apart Lutheran Biblical interpretation from competing views, used to make clear that in whatever form the Word comes, as long as it is based on that authoritative text of the Sacred Scripture, it is delivering the “goods” whether it be in a sermon, hymn, etc.

    And of course, Dr. Kloha knows that I never suggested we have today a “perfect wording of the original text from the original penmen.” But, on the other hand, we do have a perfectly useful and adequate and certain text from which we do draw our doctrine. We never want to suggest in any way, shape or form, otherwise. I’m sure he would agree.

  5. Jeff Kloha November 5, 2012

    Thanks for the thoughts, and the tone.

    Just one comment to the comment: We are trying to accomplish the same thing, that is, to allow the Scriptures to do the work of the Spirit, without causing doubt and uncertainty. Whether we need to defend the Scriptures by articulating one specific way of defining that authority is where I think we differ. And, given recent history, by failing to provide our congregations with an adequate way of understanding the authority of the text in light of the uncertainty of the text and canon (Misquoting Jesus, Gospel of Judas, Davinci Code, etc.), we have allowed uncertainty to creep in.

    This is where I’d like some conversation, where you say: “we must never leave them with the impression that we do not have a NT text that is uncertain due to the myriad of variants. And in so doing create the impression that finally we need to try to figure out what might be the closest to the original so that we can finally know what the NT is trying to teach.” It is the terminology that concerns me. The “text” is actually “uncertain.” That cannot be denied. Is it so uncertain that the voice of the Shepherd is lost? No, and this is where we might point out the ancient attestation of the text (though, of course, we all wish we had far more manuscripts from the earliest period). It is not a “clincher” argument, and, in its limited way, is helpful.

    But rather than talking generalities, a good “test case” is the ending of Mark. What do we do with that, and how does that reflect our view of the authority of the text? Luther used Mark 16:16 as a sedes doctrinae for Baptism in the Small Catechism. He did not, nor did anyone of his day, know of any manuscript or patristic evidence that would call that passage into question, nor that there were other “endings” to Mark. We now can be as confident as we can with any other major textual question that Mark 16:9-20 was not written by the same person who wrote what we now call Mark 16:9-20, nor for that matter di that person write the “Intermediate Ending” of Mark nor the various combinations and permutations of those endings (there are actually at least five different endings in the manuscript tradition). So, in this case, a sedes doctrinae is called into question by a textual problem. Now, other passages in Scripture teach that baptism works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation, so the teaching itself is Scriptural (indeed, there are passages that teach these things perhaps more clearly than does Mark 16:16), but should we use that passage (Mark 16:16) as a sedes doctrinae? I would suggest not, that we do in fact want to distinguish the words of God from the words of men if indeed those words have been added to the scriptural text. A parallel example is where Luther himself specifically rejected the use of the comma Johanneum as a sedes doctrinae in 1 John 5 because he did not think they were written by the Apostle, even though those words were common in Latin manuscripts and editions and in later printed editions of the Greek NT. He did not translate that text in either of his editions of the German Bible. So, I will respectfully disagree with the statement that it is *incorrect* to say that “we need to try to figure out what might be the closest to the original so that we can finally know what the NT is trying to teach.” If we believe in the authority of the Scriptures, I think that we are required to do exactly that.

    The church long before Lutheran Orthodoxy was able to hear the voice of the Shepherd in the Scriptures, even though they knew full well that their hand-made copies were different from one another. They certainly tried, to best of their skill and knowledge, to “figure out what might be closest to the original.” There are numerous discussions of specific textual problems in Tertullian, Origen, Eusebius, Jerome, Augustine, etc., etc. In fact, in Augustine’s De doctrina christiana, his hermeneutics treatise, he says specifically, “The first task of the interpreter is the correction of the copies, so that the uncorrected ones give way to the corrected ones.” It is not just modern-day critics who know that there is an uncertain text. And the early church and the Reformation was able to teach faithfully even though there was textual uncertainty. So, I do think that we might find helpful (better?) ways of describing the authority of the text in the Reformation and early church.

  6. Rev. Paul T. McCain November 5, 2012

    Dr. Kloha, I too appreciate this conversation and welcome the chance to clarify.

    “The “text” is actually “uncertain.”

    Perhaps you and I are using the word uncertain in a different way, in fact, I think I’m quite certain we are using uncertain differently.

    When I speak of certainty in this context, I’m speaking of certainty that the teaching of the New Testament, drawn from the very text itself, is not uncertain because of textual variants. That is, there is no doctrine from the NT that is cast into doubt because of the various variant readings, which are, as I’m sure you would agree, in the overwhelmingly vast majority of the cases, in fact, minor in a major way, if you will.

    You are coming at it, perhaps, if I’m understanding you correctly, from the position that in fact the study of textual variants does present us with changes in word order, or verbal forms, or things added, or things taken out, and so, in that sense, I can see how you are asserting that the text is uncertain.

    Even in the examples you cite, can we say that due to what is perhaps the most “notorious” textual variant (rare indeed, to be sure) that regardless of which ending is “most original” we have nowhere else in the NT which would establish the doctrine covered there? Or likewise in the other infamous example you cite, again, a rarity when viewing all the variants we are considering, changes or alters the doctrine of the Holy Trinity? I think not. That’s my point.

    So, perhaps we would each want to be establish precisely what is certain or uncertain about the text.

    In other words, perhaps I find manuscript differences in different historical transmission of Caesar’s commentary on the Gallic wars (Commentarii de Bello Gallico), and since I have no hope of ever having the actual autograph from the pen of Caesar himself, I have to rely on copies, which have differences.

    Is the text therefore “uncertain” in the sense that we can not be certain we know what Caesar would have had us know and understand from the text? No. Is it uncertain in the sense that we can not have in our hands a text that we can all agree is precisely what Caesar himself wrote? Certainly so.

    In other words, in spite of variants, is it no longer to be certain that Caesar did write that all of Gaul is divided into three parts?

    Did he say: Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres or did he write Omnia Gallia in tres partes divisa est. Does that “textual variant” change anything that is asserted in that text? No, I do not think so.

    Similarly, that’s how I regard the study of textual variants in the New Testament.

    I hope that offers some clarification of what I’m trying to assert here, and thank you for giving me the opportunity to clarify my own thinking on these things.

    I’m looking forward to your further ruminations on this issue in your forthcoming articles on NA 28.

    Cordially, in Christ,

    • Jim metcalf November 16, 2012

      Dr. McCain,
      Am I correct in thinking that you are now saying that inerrancy is not a property of the text, but of what the text teaches? I have not understood that this has been the position of our synod in recent years, but perhaps facts mandate that we move in this direction. At least, should we have a conversation, a long conversation, about this in our midst? Such a shift would have vast implications for us.
      Jim Metcalf

  7. Rev. Paul T. McCain November 5, 2012

    A final thought, Dr. Kloha, and I certainly do not mean to drag this out any further, but here are some thoughts I’ve had whenever I again take up some study of textual criticism, which I personally find utterly fascinating, and I’m grateful for NA28.

    I’m glad someone investigates all of this but I cannot personally or professionally get stirred up about it. If one reads canonically—Scripture interprets Scripture—worry about the variants evaporates. If one reads like a splitter, then no text is safe. I am concerned that the way you frame these issues might come off as a sort of “splitter” modality, which I do not find is helpful.

    I guess I would ask whether any of this moves the Lutheran Church away from the ancient practice of Scripture interpreting Scripture.

    Do the variants observed make the canon less canonical for us?

    Do they change or alter any doctrine of the Church, which the Church must always draw from the text proper as the norma normans?

    Respectfully, and cordially, in Christ,

  8. Jeff Kloha November 5, 2012

    Well, since you don’t get stirred up about textual criticism, Paul, I’ll get stirred up for you, so you don’t have to worry about it. We all bear our own, unique, burdens.

    I think we’ve clarified quite a bit here. We do need to make a distinction between “wording of the text” and “the dogma of the church” (to use Sasse’s preferred phrase). The creedal teaching transcends any single passage (and, as a result, any single textual problem). So, no, textual criticism does not affect, in a major way, any single “doctrine,” but it does affect which passages we use to teach those doctrines. Is that fair?

    It follows, then, that arguing that “the text is certain” and “doctrine is certain” are two different arguments, and each rests on different claims and evidence. Is that fair?

    No need to reply, I just don’t understand this question: “Do the variants observed make the canon less canonical for us?”

    I don’t know if it is what you refer to as “splitting” or not, but your example from Caesar is an example of a change that pretty much does not matter. The “meaning” is the same, though the “text” is different. But, I think we can agree that the ending of Mark, 1 John 5:7-8, and other less significant textual problems do, quite often, affect the exegesis of a passage, and as a result what we may teach from that passage (emphasis on “what we teach from that passage”; I did not say, as noted above “affect doctrine”). For example, in John 1:18 is Jesus the unique Son or the unique God? The difference between those two is a single word, but the exegesis of that passage, and hence the teaching drawn from it, will be different. But, whether or not Jesus is the Son of God does not rest on that textual decision. Is that fair?

    But, your previous comment (10:52am) sounds pretty much like what I would say, so its good that we’ve had a chance to clarify.

    I don’t want to throw textual criticism entirely under the bus, though. Take, for example, issues regarding the role of women in public worship. There is a significant textual variant at 1 Cor 14:34-35; another at Romans 16:7; another at Gal 3:28-29. All those are critical for discussion of this issue. So, I’ll keep working at this stuff, just in case . . .

  9. Rev. Paul T. McCain November 6, 2012

    Thanks, Dr. Kloha, I certainly do not wish to give the impression I’m overly critical of textual criticism, but as Dirty Harry wisely pointed out “textual criticism has got to know its limitation” … at least that’s what I remember him saying, or something like it.

    Thanks for the exchange.

    • Jeff Kloha November 6, 2012

      Every field of study and theology has its limitations. Textual criticism, systematics, history. The key is knowing which one is useful in dealing with a given text or theological issue. We need history, exegesis, and, yes, textual criticism for some things. And I’ll very grudgingly admit that we might, hypothetically, even need systematics on rare occasions, too. (Smiley face)

  10. Chris Browne November 8, 2012

    I have enjoyed the spirited discussion, even though it distracted me from the work given me of preparing a sermon for Sunday! It seems you (Jeff and Paul) were able to concede points without reaching concord because you are two different sorts of theologians: exegete and “systematician”. We need both. We need integrity in citing and interpreting texts (for example, it is simply wrong when the “whereas” of some resolution cites a Scripture that doesn’t speak to the issue at hand). Yet the inspiration of Scripture by a single Author enables and requires the direction afforded by ever-widening circles of context which seeks to harmonize every word in its place. It is the lack of respect for the wider contexts which enables the heretic to claim that his or her teaching is still ‘biblical.’

    Behind the fears (connected to the inherent uncertainty in determining exactly what verbally inspired texts are) is a very human and very dangerous desire for control and a hope for certainty apart from loving trust. Such a desire to be like God, knowing good and evil, well, you know what follows! Out here, outside the Garden, uncertainty like decay and death reigns. That doesn’t mean we throw up our hands and say, What’s the use? any more than the fact that the path from symbol to meaning is not one-dimensional makes us despair of interpreting a text. What it does mean is that we humbly accept our limitations while seeking better approximations. What it means is our arguments sound more like wooing. What it means is that we keep relying on the Holy Spirit to reveal the text and its meaning to us when and where He wills. My hope is built neither upon the skill of the textual critic nor upon the brilliance of the expositor, while I appreciate both. Yet I believe that I cannot, by my own reason or strength have certainty. That must be received as a gift.

  11. jim Metcalf November 16, 2012

    The conversation has helped me recall two questions I ask myself when studying the Gospels: 1) Do we believe Jesus because we are first convinced the Bible is true, or do we believe the Bible because we have first experienced Jesus’ love, for most of us first in our Baptism? That is, what is the center and the starting point? 2) How does Jesus handle the Holy Scriptures, in distinction from how others handled it? See, for example, his sermon in Nazareth.

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